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The new “surge” strategy in Iraq, led by General David Petreaus, has been heavily marketed as an example of the U.S. military’s application of the “lessons of history” from previous counterinsurgencies to Iraq, foremost among them the need to win the population over from insurgents through cultivating human relationships, addressing popular grievances and providing security.
Yet one glance at the realities on the ground in Iraq today reveal that the cornerstone of current U.S. military strategy is less about cultivating human relationships than about limiting them, primarily through concrete walls and checkpoints. And it has been less about minimizing violence than containing Iraq’s population and redirecting the battlefield from the streets to the skies above Iraq.
While the coffee klatches between Marine commanders and Sunni tribal sheikhs may garner all the publicity, the real story on the ground in Iraq is that from Baghdad to Mosul, the U.S. military has been busy constructing scores of concrete walls and barriers between and around Iraqi neighborhoods, which it terms “Gated Communities.” In Baghdad alone, 12-foot-high walls now separate and surround at least eleven Sunni and Shiite enclaves. Broken by narrow checkpoints where soldiers monitor traffic via newly issued ID cards, these walls have turned Baghdad into dozens of replica Green Zones, dividing neighbor from neighbor and choking off normal commerce and communications. Similar walls are being erected in other Iraqi cities, while the entire city of Falluja remains surrounded by a razor-wire barrier, with only one point of entry into the city. Moreover, the U.S. military has doubled its use of unmanned aerial drones and increasingly relies upon aerial strikes to quell insurgent activities, often through bombings and targeted assassinations.
While there is no question that overall levels of violence have temporarily decreased, Iraq has become virtually caged in a carapace of concrete walls and razor wire, reinforced by an aerial occupation from the sky. Reporting from a recent visit to the Dora neighborhood of Baghdad, the seasoned journalist Nir Rosen noted in Rolling Stone (March 6, 2008) that:
Looming over the homes are twelve-foot-high security walls built by the Americans to separate warring factions and confine people to their own neighborhood. Emptied and destroyed by civil war, walled off by President Bush’s much-heralded “surge,” Dora feels more like a desolate, post-apocalyptic maze of concrete tunnels than a living, inhabited neighborhood.
The Israeli Laboratory
The explosion of walls and enclaves reinforced by aerial violence across Iraq suggest that the primary counterinsurgency lessons being followed by the U.S. military in Iraq today derive less from the lessons of “Lawrence of Arabia” than from Israel’s experiences in the Occupied Palestinian Territories over the past decade.
Over the past decade, Israel has developed a pacification strategy against Palestinian resistance to its military occupation by erecting separation walls and checkpoints across Palestinian territory that has enclosed Palestinians within a proliferating archipelago of ethnic enclaves to separate them from each other and from illegal Israeli settlements on Palestinian land. This wall and enclave strategy is maintained under a blanket of aerial Israeli surveillance and deadly unmanned drones, which target the frequent airborne assassinations and strikes. This strategy reached its apotheosis in Gaza following Israel’s withdrawal of its soldiers and settlements in 2005. In Gaza, 1.5 million Palestinians are now living within an enclosed cage, while Israel controls access to the essentials of life through high-tech border terminals and unleashes “penetration raids” and airborne “targeted killings” when resistance is offered.
Iraq, it seems, is surging towards Gaza.
This fact is not missed by average Iraqis. Visiting the Sunni bastion of Amriya in Baghdad, Nir Rosen in The Nation (April 3, 2008) recounts how his Iraqi driver pointed to a gap in the concrete walls with which the U.S. occupation forces have surrounded Amriya: “We call it the Rafah Crossing.” He was referring to the one gate from besieged Gaza to Egypt that the Israeli army occasionally allows to open.
The U.S. military’s virtual reproduction of distinctively Israeli counterinsurgency tactics in Iraq reveals that claims about applying the “lessons of history” of counterinsurgent warfare to Iraq are largely beside the point. The actual application of counterinsurgency on the ground in Iraq has a distinctly Israeli DNA, born of very recent lessons from Israel’s own urban warfare laboratory in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
This should not be surprising. The Israeli DNA in the new “surge” strategy is only the latest manifestation of a widely overlooked but unmistakable American predilection to increasingly draw from Israel’s urban warfare laboratory and its flawed efforts to devise fresh tactics in the service of rebooting its own military occupation of Palestinian lands. What we are seeing in Iraq today has much less to do with the declared shift in U.S. military doctrine than with a deeper and more far-reaching “Israelization” of U.S. military strategy and tactics over the past two decades that was only heightened by America’s misadventures in the Middle East after September 11, 2001. In the search for new means to confront urban insurgencies in predominately Arab and Muslim lands, there has been a complex institutional and cultural harmonization between these two militaries under the banner of fighting “the war on terror,” though the traffic is mostly in one direction. In light of the real lessons of counterinsurgency history, however, mimicking Israel is a recipe for failure.
The “Israelization” of U.S. Military Doctrine and Tactics
This “Israelization” of U.S. military doctrine and tactics can be traced back to the early 1990’s, especially the “Black-hawk down” debacle of 1993 in Somalia, which led U.S. military strategists to rethink their approach to fighting urban warfare in poor Third World “battle spaces.” In the following years, according to urban theorist Mike Davis in his 2004 article “The Pentagon as Global Slum Lord,” Israeli advisors were brought in to teach Marines, Rangers and Navy Seals the state of the art tactics against urban insurgencies that Israel was using to ruthlessly suppress Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza.
This tactical “Israelization” of U.S. combat doctrine was accompanied by what Davis terms a deeper strategic “Sharonization” (referring to Israeli militarist and later Prime Minister Ariel Sharon) of the Pentagon’s worldview in which U.S. military strategists began to envision the capacity of high-tech warfare to contain and possibly defeat insurgencies rooted in third world urban environments. Sharon is known to have kept by his bedside a well-thumbed Hebrew edition of Alistair’s Horne’s A Savage War of Peace, an account of the failed French effort to defeat the Algerian insurgency against French colonial occupation. While many viewed the French defeat as proof of the futility of military solutions to anti-colonial insurgencies, Sharon’s belief was that Israel could learn from Algeria to get right what the French did not. In 2001, the journalist Robert Fisk reported, Sharon told French Prime Minister Jacques Chirac in a phone conversation that the Israelis were “like you in Algeria,” the only difference being that “we [the Israelis] will stay.”
The “Israelization” of U.S. military doctrine and tactics since the attacks on September 11, 2001, has gone so far as to create what the Palestinian academic Marwan Bishara, writing in Al-Ahram Weekly (April-May, 2002), has termed a new “strategic cult” in which Israel’s “asymmetrical war” against the Palestinians became seen as a continuation of the U.S. “war on terrorism” in both theory and practice. Learning from Israel’s experiences centered on the need for new precision weaponry and a tactical emphasis on aerial assassinations and armored bulldozers, as well as other elements of Israel’s fighting style in the new “asymmetrical” and urban battle spaces. According to The Independent’s Justin Huggler (March 29, 2003) Israel’s unprecedented assault on Palestinian cities and the refugee camp in Jenin during “Operation Defensive Shield” in April 2002 was keenly observed by foreign militaries, particularly the United States and UK as they geared up to invade and occupy Iraq.
But the most direct application of the Israeli tutorial took place in Iraq, particularly after the U.S. found itself mired in a growing insurgency in an occupied country, confronting urban guerilla warfare and suicide bombings in Fall, 2003. Having banished counterinsurgency doctrine from its own playbook after Vietnam, the Pentagon turned to Israel. According to the investigative journalist Seymour Hersh writing in The New Yorker (December 15, 2003),
One step the Pentagon took was to seek active and secret help in the war against the Iraqi insurgency from Israel, America’s closest ally in the Middle East. According to American and Israeli military and intelligence officials, Israeli commandos and intelligence units have been working closely with their American counterparts at the Special Forces training base at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, and in Israel to help them prepare for operations in Iraq. Israeli commandos are expected to serve as ad-hoc advisers — again, in secret — when full-field operations begin.
Hence, American forces increasingly used a new set of tactics that appeared to have come straight out of the Israeli playbook from the occupied Palestinians territories, including physically enclosing villages within razor-wire fences, bulldozing homes of suspected insurgents, destroying irrigation systems and agricultural fields, taking civilian hostages and using torture to extract intelligence. Seymour Hersh claims that the U.S. was told it had to “go unconventional” like the Israelis — to use harsh tactics to counter the harsh insurgency such as deploying assassination squads. As he summarized it: “The American-Israeli liaison on Iraq amounts to a tutorial on how to dismantle an insurgency.”
According to Julian Borger at the Guardian (December 9, 2003) one former senior American intelligence official raised serious concerns about the dangers of adopting Israel’s “hunter-killer” teams, and the political implications of such an open embrace of Israel: “It is bonkers, insane. Here we are — we’re already being compared to Sharon in the Arab world and we’ve just confirmed it by bringing in the Israelis and setting up assassination teams.”
The “Surge”: Shifting Tactics in Iraq, Israeli-Style
The Israeli tutorial, as we know, was nothing less than a complete failure, as Iraq slipped into anarchy and then raging civil war in large part as a result of the destructive tactics deployed the U.S. military.
As a consequence, the failures in Iraq forced the U.S. military to reconsider the pre-eminence of harsh Israeli-style tactics. And so in late 2006, Gen. David Petraeus and his highly touted cadre of counterinsurgency (COIN) experts, fresh from a six-month command and staff course at Fort Leavenworth that according to The Independent’s Robert Fisk (April 11, 2007) included at least four senior Israeli officers, ushered in a heavily marketed new counterinsurgency strategy that reduced the reliance upon brute military force in favor of creating alliances with former insurgents, building intelligence capacity, and restoring a semblance of security for the population, particularly in Baghdad.
But it would be a mistake to read this new “hearts and minds” counterinsurgency strategy as a full-scale retreat from “Israelization” in two important respects, both of which illustrate how remarkably similar American and Israeli strategic and tactical frameworks have become at this point in time.
First, it is striking how much the new U.S. approach in Iraq mirrors Israel’s own tactical response to its failed attempt to use harsh and brutal tactics to crush the renewed surge of Palestinian resistance between 2001 and 2004. In 2004, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon unveiled a new strategy — what he termed “disengagement” — as a new way to “shift the narrative.”
This strategy included the tactical withdrawal of Israeli settlements and soldiers from the Gaza Strip to be replaced by its complete encirclement and economic strangulation, while further enclosing Palestinians in the West Bank within separation walls, barriers and checkpoints. Whereas the previous approach relied upon aggressive Israeli military incursions within Palestinian areas, the new strategy seeks to control Palestinians from beyond their walled-off enclosures by selectively controlling access to life essentials and relying on air-strikes to quell resistance.
Similarly, in response to the chaos in Iraq and the growing popular demand for a U.S. withdrawal from Iraq in late 2006, President Bush and the U.S. military adopted the “surge” strategy as its own way to “change the narrative.” As in the Israeli case, the “surge” has shifted techniques of domination across Iraq from the direct application of violence against insurgents to indirect spatial incarceration, multiplying archipelagos of externally alienated and internally homogenous ethno-national enclaves through walls and checkpoints, under a blanket of aerial surveillance.
Secondly, the tactical shift towards walls, enclaves and aerial domination is still rooted in the “Sharonization” of U.S. strategic doctrine mentioned earlier; that is, the belief that one can use military force to defeat an insurgency by reformulating one’s military tactics. Neither Israel nor the United States are willing to countenance a serious political solution to either occupation, which would entail addressing the core political issue that is driving each insurgency: ending the foreign occupation. As it happens, Henry Kissinger is reported to have given President Bush a copy of Horne’s A Savage War of Peace to read in the winter of 2006, and the U.S. military frequently uses the Algerian case as one its primary lessons in most COIN training. They appear to have learned the same faulty lessons as Sharon.
Both Israel and the U.S. are seeking to replace direct military occupation with a form of occupation management in order to preserve the fruits of their respective occupations.
Israel has simply shifted tactics to achieve its original goal of securing its illegal settlements and land confiscations in the West Bank to maintain “greater Israel.” Since it is unwilling to accept a withdrawal to the 1967 borders and allow for a fully sovereign Palestinian state, its strategy is to pacify Palestinians through ever confining walls and enclaves until Palestinians accept their fate living in splintered enclaves under complete Israeli control.
Similarly, since the U.S. is unwilling to negotiate with the insurgency or consider a timetable for withdrawal, it is clear that the new counterinsurgency plan is an effort to pacify Iraq into accepting a form of “soft partition” into ethno-political enclaves to enable the U.S. to secure its original goals of establishing permanent military bases, securing access to Iraq’s vast oil fields, and installing an Iraqi central government to pass laws to ensure these aims. Like the Palestinians, Iraqis will be sequestered within walled enclaves so that the political and economic occupation can remain in place.
The Real “Lessons of History” for Iraq
Needless to say, all this amounts to trying to find new ways to do the impossible. The bottom line is that both Israel and the U.S. will be losers in their quest for military solutions to fundamentally political insurgencies against a foreign military occupation. Framing an occupation as “liberation” or “counter-terrorism” does not make it any less a foreign occupation.
One of the great ironies in all of this is the willful failure of both Israel and the United States to learn the fundamental historical lesson of the French in Algeria: that they could have negotiated a withdrawal far earlier and spared all this bloodshed and violence.
Militarily, the French army did not lose — they certainly won the Battle of Algiers and had pacified the country by late 1958. But the military victory was hollow. The French achieved pacification only, which simply meant that the number of violent incidents per month was at a tolerable level. But this came at the price of herding over a million Algerians into fortified villages, extensive torture, and millions killed. This was a situation that could not be sustained and it unraveled as open warfare broke out between settlers and Algerians with the French army caught in the middle, battling both. All of this looks very much like Iraq today with Americans caught between Shia and Sunni militias, battling both in an effort to achieve pacification on behalf of an ineffective puppet government associated with its occupation. There are also obvious parallels to Israel’s predicament in the occupied Palestinian territories.
The primary reason why the French military victory was hollow was because the French offered no political solution that met the core aspirations of Algerian nationalism, which should be clear to anyone who reads the second half of A Savage War of Peace. They only offered a flimsy notion of “self-determination” and “democracy” that De Gaulle called “association,” which we recognize today as a neo-colonial relationship. France sought to maintain exterritorial control through military bases and dominion over Algerian oil resources, including a permanent French settler presence. The Algerians rejected this and fought until the French were forced to leave entirely. The parallels with U.S. plans for Iraq hardly need to be elaborated.
Instead of learning from the French experience, the U.S. has naively looked to the Israeli experience as a training manual for counterinsurgency. The U.S. continues to be mesmerized by a mythical version of Israel that is based more on savvy marketing than demonstrated performance. Israel’s responses to unconventional war has never been well developed or very successful; it was defeated by Hezbollah in South Lebanon not once but twice, and its attempt to crush the Palestinian uprising through force actually led to further suicide bombings, while its destruction of the Palestinian infrastructure has left the political field open to Hamas and Islamic Jihad.
Mimicking Israel is a recipe for failure. Martin Van Creveld, an Israeli military historian who had lectured U.S. military officials on Israeli military strategy in late 2003, warned in an Associated Press article (December 12, 2003) that just as Israel had been unsuccessful in eliminating militant groups and suicide bombers, the United States cannot expect to be victorious in Iraq. “The Americans are coming here to try to mimic all kinds of techniques, but it’s not going to do them any good,” he reportedly warned. “I don’t see how on earth they (the U.S.) can win. I think this is going to end the same way Vietnam did. They are going to flee the country hanging on the strings of helicopters.”
Whether or not this happens will be the subject of future “lessons of history.” But by following the Israeli model rather than the actual lessons of counterinsurgency history, the U.S. appears trapped by the logic of its own image co-dependency with Israel as a state now permanently at war with much of the Arab and Muslim world, with history’s lessons decidedly not on its side. Read correctly, A Savage War of Peace is less a user’s manual for counterinsurgency than a warning about the futility of fighting colonial wars in the first place.
STEVE NIVA is a professor of Middle East Studies and International Politics at The Evergreen State College in Olympia, WA and is a contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus, where this piece originally appeared . He is currently writing a book on the relationship between Israeli military violence and Palestinian suicide bombings.